Diamond anniversary: Ten years after Coach Brian O’Connor’s arrival, UVA baseball is a powerhouse

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Brian O’Connor was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He has called Charlottesville home for 10 years now, and has racked up more than 450 wins as Virginia’s baseball coach. UVA is poised to make its 10th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Photo: Jim Daves Brian O’Connor was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He has called Charlottesville home for 10 years now, and has racked up more than 450 wins as Virginia’s baseball coach. UVA is poised to make its 10th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Photo: Jim Daves

It was Sunday, April 21, 2013, Brian O’Connor’s 42nd birthday. Virginia had taken both games of Saturday’s doubleheader against No. 5 Florida State and was an inning away from its first-ever sweep of one of college baseball’s most dominant programs.

Pitcher Kyle Crockett stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the eighth inning, his team three outs away from victory. A lock-down closer, Crockett had never taken a turn at bat in his collegiate career.

“I really didn’t have anything to lose,” he said.

To the delight of his coaches and the amusement of his teammates, the junior lefty ripped a single up the middle and eventually came around to score the final run of the game. He then completed the six-out save, striking out four of seven batters, while allowing just one hit. UVA won, 5-2.

First baseman Jared King, a Radford native, is the type of hard swinging, fundamentally sound hitter who makes UVA’s batting lineup a top-to-bottom problem for opposing pitchers. Photo: Jim Daves
First baseman Jared King, a Radford native, is the type of hard swinging, fundamentally sound hitter who makes UVA’s batting lineup a top-to-bottom problem for opposing pitchers. Photo: Jim Daves

The historic sweep was the result of a typical formula for O’Connor’s brand of Virginia baseball: stellar pitching and sound defense paired with power, patience, and precision at the plate.

Over the 10 years since the coach arrived from Notre Dame, the names have changed, but the results have not. Once pedestrian, UVA’s baseball program is now a perennial power. The ’Hoos humbled FSU before a total of 13,890 fans, a program record for a three-game series. Sellout crowds of 4,980 attended each of the final two games.

“Pretty good present, certainly,” O’Con-nor said of his birthday.

He wasn’t the only one enjoying himself. Seated in section 106, 74-year-old Marvin Ripley hasn’t missed a home game in more than seven years: “Man, there’ve been some cold ones. Woo-eee.”

Ripley, who sits alongside his wife, Maxine, at Davenport Field, has loved baseball ever since he started listening to the Boston Braves and New York Giants on the radio in 1948. He played the game in high school and eventually coached Little League. He’s a sucker for fundamentals, which is why he fell in love with O’Connor’s teams.

“When they need to lay a bunt down, most times they can. When they need to steal a base, they can,” he said. “And when you hit the ball, you don’t look to see if it’s foul or not, you run to first. Somebody will tell you whether it’s foul or not.”

Since O’Connor’s hiring, Virginia has won more than 450 games, captured two ACC crowns, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament nine times. (UVA had made just three such appearances prior to his arrival). O’Connor has twice taken his team to Omaha, Nebraska, site of the College World Series, and developed quite the following en route.

“We could not have the program at this level that we do today without the fan support,” said O’Connor, who answers to “Oak.” “That fan support that we got the Florida State weekend and that we’ve had for years here impacts every facet of this program.”

Virginia has seen a six-fold increase in home attendance during O’Connor’s reign, a testament to the coach and the juggernaut he has built. In nine seasons, the program has hosted six NCAA regionals and notched seven 40-win seasons. It has produced 48 Major League Baseball draft picks, 13 All-America selections, and 40 All-ACC honorees, including two ACC Players of the Year and two ACC Pitchers of the Year.

The Wahoos have won more games than any other Division I baseball program over the last five years, and the mid-April domination of Florida State—the only ACC team O’Connor had yet to sweep—served as a monument marking 10 years of Oak’s legacy.

“I tell the players all the time, ‘Never take winning for granted’” O’Connor said. “I always guard them against this, that when you have a successful program and you win a lot of games, sometimes they can have a tendency to think that it just happens. College baseball games are hard to win no matter who it’s against. And you need to take enjoyment out of each and every time that you step on the field and are victorious.”

Scott Silverstein, a fifth-year senior from Brookeville, Maryland, embodies the persistent attitude of Coach Brian O’Connor’s teams. A highly-touted recruit, Silverstein underwent two shoulder surgeries and pitched just 14 innings prior to the 2012 season. This year, he has emerged as a force in the Cavalier rotation. Photo: Jim Daves
Scott Silverstein, a fifth-year senior from Brookeville, Maryland, embodies the persistent attitude of Coach Brian O’Connor’s teams. A highly-touted recruit, Silverstein underwent two shoulder surgeries and pitched just 14 innings prior to the 2012 season. This year, he has emerged as a force in the Cavalier rotation. Photo: Jim Daves

 

Headfirst baseball

In June 2003, Virginia Athletics Director Craig Littlepage phoned Paul Mainieri to inquire about his top assistant, a 32-year-old named Brian O’Connor. Then Notre Dame’s skipper, Mainieri spoke with Littlepage at length before calling O’Connor, who was recruiting prep prospects in Omaha, naturally.

“Paul said, ‘Hey, I have the perfect job for you,’” O’Connor recalled. “‘I think I just talked to your future boss.’”

Days later, Littlepage and O’Connor met inside a Radisson Hotel just outside the Cincinnati airport.

“I knew within 10 minutes of our meeting that Brian O’Connor was a guy that offered the University of Virginia and our baseball program something really special,” said Littlepage, who had only taken his post two years prior. “His preparation, his vision, and the detail with which he spoke about what we needed to do to have a nationally competitive baseball program were very, very much on target.”

That Littlepage was even vetting coaching candidates was a victory in and of itself. In the spring of 2001, school administrators proposed a tiering of varsity sports, and baseball was slated to become little more than a club offering.

“Instead, the Board of Visitors made sure that excellence at UVA would include athletics, and we were charged with a game plan by which we could advance and grow our intercollegiate sports programs,” Littlepage said.

That game plan ultimately afforded Littlepage the opportunity to upgrade facilities, fully fund scholarships, and attract strong coaching candidates. He sought to identify coaches who would bring new ideas and energy to programs that were experiencing malaise “to the point where we could have success, be competitive, and win championships both on a conference and national level.”

“My thought hasn’t changed from when we got here and that is to have a very, very consistent program at the highest level that can play in the NCAA tournament every year,” O’Connor said. “We don’t talk about big expectations. We talk more about daily expectations, because if we do the little things, then we’ll have those special opportunities like we had in 2009 and 2011 [at the College World Series].”

The dawning of the 2013 campaign brought with it great uncertainty for Oak & Co. The talent was unmistakable, but so was the inexperience. Pundits held UVA out of preseason polls and predicted a rebuilding year in Charlottesville.

“This year, our expectation was that we were going to win,” said O’Connor, a four-time ACC Coach of the Year. “Are the players different? Do we not have as much experience? Sure that’s the case, but that’s never held us back before. I don’t like to put limitations on any team. Our expectations are to succeed at the very, very highest level and that will never change.”

Three weeks into the season, Virginia was 14-0. The team won its 30th game before it lost its fourth. The sweep of FSU vaulted the Wahoos into the top five of the national rankings. The success didn’t surprise the man in charge.

“It’s a really good group of young men that play the game the right way,” O’Connor said. “Many times this year, we’ve been what people would think would be out of the ball game, down five or six runs in the last couple of innings, and found a way to come back and win the game. We have a chance to win every game and they just don’t quit fighting until the last out.”

The embodiment of the team’s never-say-die attitude is Scott Silverstein, a fifth-year senior from Brookeville, Maryland. Coming out of St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., the 6’6″ pitcher was a more highly regarded prospect than area phenom Danny Hultzen, who became one of the most decorated players in Virginia baseball history.

In the beginning of his senior season at St. John’s, however, Silverstein experienced sharp pain in his throwing shoulder and was shelved for the majority of the season. In June 2008, he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum. The southpaw arrived on Grounds that fall and began throwing again but not without discomfort. He was shut down once more and watched from the dugout as his team advanced to Omaha for the first time in school history in 2009.

That summer, Silverstein visited renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. After multiple cortisone injections and repeated attempts at pitching, he underwent a second major shoulder surgery—this one performed by Andrews. The subsequent rehabilitation was successful, though he was forced to redshirt in 2010. Silverstein threw just 14 innings in 2011, mostly in relief. While Virginia made its second College World Series appearance that year, he logged just one-third of an inning in Omaha.

In 2012, Silverstein pitched regularly for the first time since 2007, his junior year in high school. While his numbers weren’t spectacular, the experience he gained set the stage for a breakout performance this season.

Statistically, Silverstein is among the team leaders in every significant pitching category. Against FSU, he threw seven innings of one-hit ball, as UVA became the first team to hold the Seminoles to one base hit in 15 years. One of the Wahoos’ most dependable pitchers, Silverstein will be a critical piece of his team’s postseason run. He is the epitome of a program built on discipline, devotion, and desire.

“I remember saying to myself that the injury wouldn’t define me as a baseball player, but it would define me as a person, how I responded to it,” Silverstein said. “I’m proud of how far I’ve come.”

While the whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts for Virginia’s teams, O’Connor, a consummate professional, always measured and tactful, is acutely aware of the benefit of strong-willed individuals inside his clubhouse. He is as proud of his pitcher’s comeback as he is of his team’s wins.

“It would have been easy for that kid with the surgery that he had to give up,” O’Connor said of Silverstein. “I mean, 50 percent of the people never return from one of those surgeries, let alone two. It just shows the type of person he is… He’s going to have that for the rest of his life, that he had really tough times at this point in his life and he persevered through them. What a great lesson.”

  • BrianKz

    What a great article about a magnificent coach and inspiring program! Good job coach, we are so proud to call you a Hoo!

  • B Hunt Gunter

    Great article. The writer obviously has a love for everything UVA and is not only a perfect person to wrte this type of in depth article but also a fantastic brother.

  • Dan

    Awesome! Great stuff. Go Hoos.

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